Our first glimpse into the issue we’ve all been waiting for, this one comes from award-winning humorist Harrison Scott Key. Subscribers, orders should be hitting the mailbox this week! For the uninitiated, YAW! GIDDYUP! 

When your book wins the Thurber Prize in American Humor, our nation’s most important literary prize for a funny book, people have a lot to say, such as, “Oh, wow, I’ve never heard of that award!” or “You still have to pay for your food.”

Once, I was introduced at a book festival as, “Harrison Scott Key, winner of the largest and most important prize in American humor, which is also the only such prize in existence.”

Everybody laughed, oh did they. I also laughed, thinking about how I was going to set all their houses on fire, once those homes could be located.

But I suppressed the rage, knowing, as I do, that rage can be cured and aged into something holy and good, if one can express it with art and irony. Eff those people.

(See, there it is again, the rage.)

I am a believer in Jesus, which might explain the rage. We believers try to remain attuned to the darkness of our hearts. The Bible seems clear on this point, that we suck by many orders of magnitude. The human heart, due to its own tragicomic disposition and its being abused by the tragicomic hearts of others, can do tremendous damage in the world. It must be studied, guided, educated, and occasionally caged and sedated.

People work out the rage in many ways: medication, sex, watersports. Funny people work out the rage and sadness and hurt via comedy, usually during staff meetings and on social media, occasionally at dinner parties. Some of us work the transmuted rage into funny books, for which we are paid, which is nice. I have a mortgage.

When I am at these dinner parties, brooding over my mortgage, and people find out that my book won a prize for being funny, they ask me how I did it. They demand to know.

“How do you write funny?” they say, hoping to improve their tweeting, I guess.

“Harness the rage,” I say.

And they laugh. “No, really,” they say.

“Do you cry when you are alone?” I ask. “Write about that.”

But they don’t have ears to hear. They laugh. They giggle. The nice people at the dinner party think I am being funny. And maybe I am. People only laugh at what’s true.

“Is there a secret to it?” they ask, at cocktail parties and classrooms and bookstores, buttonholing me in book festival restroom facilities.

“Write what your heart says that your mouth cannot repeat,” I say, zipping my fly.

But they do not like this answer, because it is cryptic and guru-like and sounds difficult to apply in an entry-level writing course, which it is, because the problem of learning to write funny is complex and layered and cannot be elucidated in a men’s restroom, especially the ones with a loud hand-dryer. People want pith, gist, a listicle, a shot glass of potion that might be drunk to make them hilarious and acquisitive of major book deals and Netflix writing offers.

But I have no pith. Beautiful things are complicated. Simplicity is for beginners and babies. Become as little children to get to heaven, sure, but to write funny, put away childish things and allow yourself to be baffled by your own hurting raging sadness, or the hurting raging sadness you have caused in your friends and enemies.

I had an enemy many years ago, a playwright named David who taught me in more classes than any other teacher in my 42 years on the planet, which technically makes him some kind of religious martyr.

David was my dissertation advisor, and ours was a classic student-teacher relationship, full of continual verbal threats and pedestrian violence. Sparks flew. Also, chalk. David was fond of throwing the stuff at me, which he did when I challenged his declarations and presuppositions. When I arrived in his classroom at the age of 25, I was arrogant, ambitious, restless, curious, hungry, too impatient for the life experience I did not yet possess and that no expanse of ambition could will into being. This is why David threw chalk. It was his way of saying, “Shut up and listen, fool.”

He had an Emmy or two in his office, which made me want to listen, but listening is hard when you’re an insufferable jackass, which I was. I still remember the first funny play I showed to him, a Pinteresque knockoff about a man for whom words lose all meaning and who hangs himself while his family cheers him on. David’s only comment on the script was, “Wow. Have you considered trying realism?”

Realism? I’d show him realism! Next, I wrote a comedy about a bearded lady and a talking sock puppet named Pontius Pilate.

“Here’s my realism,” I said. He responded by throwing more chalk. David was no fan of comedy and seemed to think it a second-class genre. For David, comedy must move to the back of the bus. He was a serious writer who wrote epic dramas of social justice that plumbed the deep, dark chasms of the human animal. “Writing is easy,” David always said. “Just cut your wrist and bleed on the page.”

And I was like, “But how do I make it funny?”

And he was like, “Don’t.”

Once, after sharing one of his own deep, dark tragedies in class, I raised my hand.

“Wow,” I said. “Have you considered trying comedy?”

The tiny rod of chalk chastened me squarely in the forehead with the force of God’s judgment, exploding in a cloud of dust as my classmates looked on in horror. Was I the Goliath to David’s David? He was Jewish, like the future king of Israel, but I was no giant. I was a child, and I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, who had been assaulted by his Emmy-winning professor in class.

My face, red with rage and dusted in white powder, remained still. I hadn’t broken off eye contact with my mentor-slash-attacker. I just stared. Other men in my family would have launched across the seminar table and broken the man’s glasses and nose, to restore what pride had been lost. But not me. God’s power filled me that day, with judgment and guilt, at my proud ignorance and restless failure to listen. As blindered and tunnel-visioned about comedy as David was, he remained a man with much to teach, and I did not have ears to hear.

“You’ve got chalk on your face,” friends would often say, after class. “What happened?”

“Emotional growth,” I would say.

I wanted to write stories as powerfully as this man wrote. But how does one bleed with humor? I can remember handing my first full-length comedy to David.

“What did you think?” I asked, a few days later.

“Congratulations,” he said. “You’ve written a two-hour fraternity prank.”

“Is that good?” I said.

But no, it wasn’t good. Oh, there were fleeting glimpses of true comedy, a line of dialogue that riffled with ironic fury, say, but mostly it was chalky, dry. There was no blood in it.

The most important lesson that David taught me was in his dedication to the daily work of writing. He arrived to his office at five or six in the morning, writing before class, bleeding on the page while the door stayed closed. Outside his office hung a small sign: “If this door is closed, I am either writing or not here. In either case, knocking will not work.”

I would rush to his office in the morning before class, to show him some new failed attempt to write something funny, and every morning, when I saw that closed door, I knew: the man is working. Because writers work. They write, and they bleed.

When I left graduate school many years ago, only then did my bleeding begin, a mere trickle at first. Like the man who taught me, I began waking up at 5:00 a.m. to write, and write, and write. Years passed and, as will happen when you are a stubborn ass, I got better. I found a vein. My comic writing thickened into something more substantial, less like a fraternity prank and more like truth. The more baffled I let myself be, the funnier I got.

To paraphrase the great James Thurber, unless your comedy is a little serious, you’ve probably missed something along the line. What David taught me, in both word and deed, was to keep edging closer to the serious, no matter how funny you want to be. Funny things are funny because they’re about the hurting, and hurting is serious. Pain complicates. Rage baffles.

For many years, I did not want to believe this truth, because I did not want to admit that I hurt, which is why it took me so long to write an amazing funny book that won a prize nobody’s ever heard of. But I did it. I learned to bleed on the page, and to swindle others into laughing about my blood loss. And it has won me much acclaim.

Now, when people ask me how to write funny, I don’t rage at them. I tell them the truth.

“What’s the secret?” they say.

“Write everything you cannot say in a job interview.”

“Ha ha,” they say.

“Write about why you hate your father.”


“Tell me a story about a series of rejections you wish the world to forget.”


“Write about how ugly you are.”

“Excuse me?” they say.

“Look in the mirror,” I say.

“Hey, now.”

“Write about what you wish you saw there.”

“Listen, buddy.”

“Go to the pain,” I say, hugging them. “Run to it.”

And mostly people do run away. Nobody invites me to dinner parties anymore, and it hurts. Which is good. I can use that. You can, too. Go to it. Run!

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